Category Archives: Information Literacy

Accreditation Standards & Libraries: A Dangerous Ride Down a Devolving Course

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE, or, Middle States) is looking for feedback on the proposed revisions to the Characteristics of Excellence, the MSCHE accreditation standards. If you work in a college or university in an area that comes under Middle States jurisdiction, have or know of a child who attends one of the affected schools, or care about the future of higher education, add your comments to an online survey by January 31 or take the opportunity to attend a town hall meeting scheduled at one of several locations in the region throughout the spring of 2014, and be sure your voice is heard.

The Middle States standards set the bar for the accreditation of colleges in five states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. If adopted, the new standards will shape what higher education looks like in four of the eight Ivy League universities, the top two largest U.S. colleges as measured by enrollment, nine Historically Black Colleges, and the first college in the United States dedicated to the education of the deaf, among so many others. The number of students who will be affected is extraordinarily large and diverse. In contrast, the number of standards by which Middle States will measure a school is dramatically shrinking to half the number established the last time the standards underwent a comprehensive review.

According to the MSCHE, “[i]n response to extensive feedback from member institutions and experienced peer evaluators, the Steering Committee attempted to streamline the standards, eliminate redundancies, and focus on clarity and brevity.” What Middle States has done in the process of streamling their standards is to eliminate any mention of libraries from the new plan and entirely eliminate a carefully crafted integration of the teaching work librarians do from the “Educational Offerings” of a college or university (current Standard 11), the “General Education” goals of in institution (current Standard 12) and any “Related Educational Activities” a school was designed to offer (current Standard 13).

The long journey academic librarians have taken to reshape instruction in research to reflect the goals of information literacy, and further, to bring academic institutions on board so that they might understand the broadened role libraries have to play in higher education has been purpose-driven, far-reaching and effective. According to the American Library Association (ALA), when it last looked, each one of the six accrediting bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation includes “language in their Standards that stress the importance of teaching [information literacy skills] abilities in colleges and universities.”

Unfortunately, since ALA did its review of the most widely accepted accreditation standards in 2011, some things have changed. What Middle States is moving towards in its proposed new and briefer guidelines, may be, in fact, part of an unwelcome trend in a backward direction.  The most recent Western Association of Schools and Colleges Handbook of Accreditation, published in 2013, leaves information literacy out of Standard 2, “Achieving Educational Objectives Through Core Functions” and only implies the existence of a library in Standard 3, “Developing and Applying Resources and Organizational Structures to Ensure Sustainability.”

As higher education in the United States moves into a period of a fuller integration of pedagogy with technology, a time where researchers struggle to find their way through the onslaught of an information overload (be it a uniquely modern problem or not), and every college administrator from the president on down is quick to remind faculty of the increasing calls for accountability, will libraries continue to be counted?  Libraries and the work librarians do must remain central in every institution of higher education.  Let your voice for libraries be heard.  Respond to the MSCHE survey today.

Curiouser and Curiouser: Guiding Students through the Information Wonderland

This week I taught a research instruction session for a learning community that pairs an introductory English Composition course with a Speech course. I love teaching this class because I get to work with colleagues in our English and Humanities Departments with whom I’ve long collaborated; we have a good rapport in the classroom and the students always seem to get a lot out of the class. Because the library session runs for twice as long as usual — we use the class periods for both classes — we always have lots of time for students to practice doing research. Because the students are usually more engaged in learning communities and there are 3 instructors in the classroom, we also typically get into discussions about topics in information literacy that we often don’t have room for in the other sessions I teach.

This time around we found something very interesting. The students were researching the Brooklyn Theater Fire, an infamous late 19th-century disaster that happened just steps from our college’s campus. We’d been using the library catalog to look for books on Brooklyn and New York City history, talking about the kinds of keywords that work best for broad or narrow topics, the usual. Recently I’ve noticed that during the internet research part of my instruction sessions students sometimes find books on commercial sites like Amazon, so I’ve started to suggest that students note down the author and title of books they find on those sites and search for them in the library catalog. I recommended that to this class, too, and a student called me over to help him do the search in our library’s catalog for a book he found on Barnes & Noble.

The student was trying to search by ISBN in the keyword search field, but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that our library (and our university system) doesn’t own the book. And, actually, we’ll never own the book, because the book he was looking for was a book of Brooklyn historical information pulled directly from Wikipedia. It took a few minutes of poking around on the B&N website to figure that out, and then we all (as a class) found a long list of books “published” by the company LLC Books:


(Hey, at least they’re relatively inexpensive, right?)

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it restricted to Wikipedia content — I remember hearing a few years ago about a similar “publisher” printing up and selling dissertations without their authors’ knowledge. And it’s pretty easy for us to discard these kinds of books from our own searches online. The listing the student found actually cites Source: Wikipedia as the author, but even those that don’t are highly suspicious: they’re on a huge variety of topics with very similar covers each with an image of a flower on it which is not at all relevant to the book’s content. Red flags everywhere, right?

But first year undergraduates are not librarians, and the student I worked with was, I think, legitimately confused by this book, especially seeing it in a set of search results that included traditionally published, “real” books. We ended up having a great conversation with the entire class about who owns the content on Wikipedia (and an introduction to open access and Creative Commons-licensed content), how print-on-demand publishing technology is changing information production, and why it’s important to evaluate information in all formats, not just online.

It was a great class; I left happy that we’d been able to cover such complex topics and hopeful that the students will continue to think critically about information the way they did in the class. However, I worry about other students, the ones in all of the classes that don’t have an extra-long library session, in which we don’t have time to get to print-on-demand Wikipedia scam books as well as everything else we need to cover. While not about library sources, I think this is important content that’s well worth discussing in our classes. But it’s tricky to accommodate all of the nuances of the information landscape in our instruction, especially when it’s both/and: real books both in print and electronic (both in the library and on the internet), and fake books, and… How do you incorporate new (and evolving) information literacy issues into your instruction?

Information Literacy at the Reference Desk

I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in a challenging and stimulating project: developing an information literacy curriculum for my campus.  If it seems like a long time coming–it is.  While my library has consistently been providing reference and instruction services to our students for a long time, its only been recently that we’ve had to develop a serious curriculum to justify our efforts.  As our university is busy with reaffirming of our accreditation and we’re faced with the usual budget crises, the time came to be able to legitimize our services and collections with an information literacy curriculum.

To articulate our mission, content, pedagogy, and assessment of our services and collections, we had to first take inventory.  To do this, we developed and implemented a citation analysis project.  First, we identified 3 sections of a required course in our most popular academic program.  For the face-to-face section of the course, we delivered a standard information literacy session that covered keywords, Boolean operators, and other database-specific skills.  For the online section, I developed an online guide that covered the same topics and I participated in a discussion forum where I answered specific questions.  THis section also, independently of our suggestion, required that each student meet with a librarian for a reference session.  The final section was our control group where no workshop was given.  We then analyzed the final papers of each section and applied a rubric that measured how well the students cited their sources and integrated them in their papers.

The results of our analysis gave us a lot of great insight into how we can improve our workshops, the topics the students need more help with, and how to better promote our collections.  The most interesting result, though, was the revelation that regardless of any other intervention, the students that came to meet with a librarian did better on their final paper than those who did not.  To put another way: reference interactions are just as an essential component to information literacy instruction as one-shot lessons.

I”m not sure why this surprised us so much, but it definitely did.  Perhaps because we unconsciously equate information literacy with in-class workshops, or because we’ve seen a steady decline in amount of reference transactions, or perhaps just because we weren’t the ones to suggest that students be required to see us, but in any event we learned an important lesson to consider our entire range of services when assessing information literacy.  I recently completed a Library Juice Academy course in critical pedagogy where we learned that information literacy instruction happens everywhere, in all aspects of our work.  We gave examples of how we practice a critical pedagogy in our collections, in our campus committee work, and, of course, in our classrooms.  But none of us considered how the work we do when a student comes to us with a reference question is essential to our pedagogy praxis.  Indeed, the kind of personalized attention we give a student during a reference interaction is the perfect time to bring that student a little closer to information literacy.

Now that we know the significance a personalized reference interaction makes, we’re brainstorming ways to systematically incorporate them into our work.  Perhaps we can suggest professors strongly encourage their students to bring their research topic to us as a requirement of the assignment.  Or, we could set up a discussion forum in our classroom management platforms for online or hybrid classes.  Finally, we could consider a roving reference program to meet students working around campus.  What has worked for your library?

When thinking about our work as librarians, it’s essential to consider all aspects of what we do and to start to engage with creative ways to promote information literacy.  The reference desk is an interesting place to start.  In what surprising locations does information literacy live in your library?  Leave a comment or tweet me @beccakatharine.

Revising The Cephalonian Method

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to test out the Cephalonian Method in one of my library orientation sessions. The Cephalonian Method is an active learning technique developed by librarians at Cardiff University in 2002. The technique has been written about in several articles, which are listed on Cardiff’s “Official Cephalonian Method Page.” Allegedly, this is a technique used in Cefalonia, Greece in the tourism industry to keep tourists interested and engaged. I was introduced to the Cephalonian Method last year at the Music Library Association meeting at a presentation by Andrea Beckendorf from Luther College (my alma mater).

At the beginning of each session, students are given index cards containing a prepared question that they ask when the instructor requests it. At Cardiff, the librarians group their index cards by color (for example, blue is for basic introductory information) and each index card has a corresponding PowerPoint slide, which is revealed after the question is asked. Many of the questions and slides contain humor that helps to keep the students attentive, engaged, and will hopefully encourage them to remember the information later on. In addition, music is played at specific times before, during, and after the session to keep the environment feeling fun and relaxed.

My use of the Cephalonian Method was much simpler than Cardiff’s. My library orientation session was for 50 or so music majors (mostly first-year students) enrolled in a music history survey. In the past, the professor and I split this class into three different sections since that’s the only way we can fit everyone into our library classrooms. But this time, I got the opportunity to do one general library orientation during class time and then work with them in small groups the following week.

For the library orientation, I didn’t play any music because I was going to a classroom with technology I was unfamiliar with. Also, I didn’t use PowerPoint because I thought it would be too labor-intensive and I knew that I wanted to demonstrate a lot of database searching. I wrote questions on 15 or so index cards. I used three different colors for the index cards—one for each “scenario” that I cover:

  • Scenario I: Using the library catalog to find a score, CD, and book.
  • Scenario II: Finding background information and scholarly articles on a specific composer.
  • Scenario III: Finding online streaming music and downloadable scores when you’re away from the library.

I numbered each colored card and I would call out “Blue number three” and the person with the blue card that had the number three would recite their question. I incorporated a lot of quirky questions that I thought music majors would enjoy, such as “I really enjoy listening to Shostakovich symphonies at 3 am because they put me right to sleep. Are there any streaming music resources other than Pandora or Spotify that I can use?“ But I tried to ensure that none of the questions could potentially embarrass anyone.

While I didn’t get a chance to do a formal assessment of the Cephalonian Method, I think it was a huge success. The time flew by and the students asked really great questions at the end of the session. If I do this next time, I would like to make the questions even more humorous. But all in all, it was very quick and easy to pull off–plus it was a fun way to spice up my teaching!

Have you used the Cephalonian Method?

“In-house Document Request”

One of the first duties I inherited in my new job was becoming the campus key contact for SciFinder. SciFinder is, at least here, the favored chemical search database of the students and faculty.  Like many databases, SciFinder has an assist to get to the full-text, in this case CAS Full-Text Options – a collaboration between CAS and various publishers. Among the various methods of connecting users to full-text is integration of the catalog, external links to patent websites, links to publisher websites and, if desired, “In-house Document Request”.

The user sees the link “In-house Document Request” and there is no indication of what it is or how it works. But when they click through, it shows my email address, has a form to send a message and then the citation for the troublesome article, patent, what have you. I get an email notification and then I try to help the person out.

When I gained this responsibility I also started recording the requests and my responses. I picked up this data collecting habit in my lab manager job because I found it always useful at work to argue about data and numbers instead of feelings and impressions. In any case, since July 10th I’ve had 130 In-house Document Requests and I broke down the responses into four broad categories: interlibrary loan request, physically on the shelf, part of the e-subscriptions, or available free online. There were also some requests I didn’t answer; usually because the article was in a foreign language and when I asked the user whether they really want an article in Kazakh the answer is typically “no”.

I’m about to give you the percentages, but remember that there is no user instruction on what “In-house Document Request” is, how it works, or when it should be used. So here are the numbers:

  • Required interlibrary loan request – 36.9%
  • Available in print in the library – 22.3%
  • Available through our e-subscriptions – 9.2%
  • Available free online – 23.9%
  • No response – 7.7%

Before talking about what I learned, let me curtail some hand wringing about the state of information literacy in America. The “available free online” category consists overwhelmingly of patent requests, often untranslated foreign patents. Even with detailed instruction, Espacenet or the Japanese Patent Office can be daunting the first few times you visit.

Also, SciFinder only reports the first appearance of an article. So a citation from Vysokomolekulyarnye Soedineniya can usually be filled with the English translation in Polymer Science U.S.S.R. a few months later – which is “available through our e-subscriptions”. So, the kids are still all right and civilization isn’t doomed.

Some lessons learned – I should do some outreach and learn more about patent searching. A lot of students just don’t know what to do with those references. I’ve also learned to use these email contacts are an avenue for liaison work. Email is main way I am contacted and the SciFinder requests have led to a couple students coming in for pointers. I learned users interpret this option in wildly divergent ways – and since there’s no guidance, who can blame them? One user requested every single reference this way until I informed them that I expected them to at least look before contacting me (there is a story behind that policy, but moving on…). Some students hope I will conjure a digital copy for them so they don’t have to come in, or just don’t check anything beyond the e-journal collection. So the abstract concern that some users don’t consider the physical collection as real has become concrete for me. But most often the requests have some element of trickiness to them, show me broken links, or cataloging mistakes. Overall, I’ve learned to enjoy these requests as little puzzles and pleasant detours from the routine.